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Can he turn Dell into a cool brand?

newsmaker Product design chief John Medica has a big job ahead--jazzing up Dell's image with computers that capture the public's imagination.

Dell's John Medica has worked on two very opposite sides of the PC industry.

In his early days as an engineer and executive at Apple Computer, he played an integral role in the development of the Macintosh II and the PowerBook. Now, as Dell's senior vice president in charge of product design, Medica is overseeing Dell's attempt to shed its image among consumers as a stodgy supplier of no-frills business PCs to a hip, edgy company attuned to the tech-savvy buyer. In other words, the "Appleization" of Dell.

Upon his arrival at Dell in 1993, Medica built up another area in which Dell had little prior experience: the notebook business. He's now charged with

Medica sat down with CNET News.com to discuss Dell's renewed focus on product design and how the company can get in the good graces of fickle hipsters.

Q: Do you think that Dell can learn to be cool?
Medica: Define "cool."

That's the thing. It's one of those things where you don't know exactly what it is, but you know when you see it. Is this something that you can learn how to do, or are product design and "coolness" things that must be part of a company's culture?
Medica: There is certainly a cultural element. When I think of an awesome product or products that I've had in my lifetime that I've thoroughly enjoyed, they're the products that are extraordinarily well thought through. (They) have a level of physical quality and predictability and function, and they are as enjoyable to use on the first day as they are on the day you've replaced them. They have a level of support and/or trust with the company from which I purchased the product, and whenever I need any type of service support?it's predictable, it's well done, and solves my issue.

We would not have gotten to where we have gotten to if we had terrible products, right?

Those are the kinds of attributes that I speak to. Then there's a whole element of emotional attributes that have to do with what kind of an emotional reaction do either I have to the product, or do others have when they see the product.

That's where you can gauge and/or measure when you have done it well--those elements of that product experience are resonating both with you personally as well with others around you. And that can be whether it's the press, whether it's peers, whether it's friends, family, customers.

Does cool design need to be part of a company's culture in order to reach these types of customers? I've been to Cupertino (Apple's headquarters) and I've been to Round Rock (Dell's home base) and as you know, those are two very different offices.

Having had a chance to work in both settings, what's so appealing and continues to be so appealing today about Dell is that it really is about the customer. And it really is trying to ensure that we are delivering a value proposition in the form of a leading product, a great value with an awesome support and service backup. That is what has made this company what it is today. And we would not have gotten to where we have gotten to if we had terrible products, right?

Sure. But why then are we having this conversation? Why is design a renewed or a heightened priority for Dell now?

I think we all see that in many ways, there has been a commoditization to some degree in the PC space. And there is an opportunity for Dell to be able to further distinguish itself by investing further in product design and differentiating our products to create a new level of demand, and also to enable us to create even more enduring relationships with customers.

When it comes to the overall design, how much do your core business customers care?

When we take a look at general usability or industrial design and appearance, the design languages of our client products--(such as) the OptiPlex, Precision or products--were derived to support the following attributes: to convey to users a level of professionalism, a level of quality and durability and reliability, a level of compatibility with the office environment and other products or furniture that are in the environment of the end user.

What is a design language?
Medica: The best way to describe a design language is the form and the physical elements that collectively define an identity of a brand. When you look at a BMW car, you recognize the kidney-shaped grills, right? If you look at the front of a BMW, if it didn't have the logo on, you'd know it's a BMW, right?

If you look at our projectors, you look at our work with printers, if you look at our workstations, you look at our OptiPlex desktops and our Latitude notebooks, the design elements, the appearance, the finishes of the products and the colors of the products, and the functional buttons of power switches will all be very consistent and will all look like it comes from the same company.

Businesses are a type of customer that's not looking for fuchsia laptops, let's say. But on a consumer side, things are a little bit different. People buy products based on wide variety of factors, and so when you design for consumers, do you have individuals come into Dell's offices that tell you what they are looking for? Do you consult with focus groups?
Medica: Yes, yes and yes. In the area of gaming, look at our XPS 700. That product was designed from the ground up by engaging with gamers around the world and going to competitions, trade shows and the like, and getting direct feedback as to what gamers value.

If you look at the XPS 700, the product looks like it wants to jump off the starting line. That is the pure aluminum housing, and also the lighting that sprays down the front and the back of the system. But it also has functional elements, because a lot of gamers are playing games in the dark to take advantage of the higher contrast. These things typically sit under a desk or have light coming down to allow the end user easier access to load the optical disc into the tray.

Does Dell's renewed focus on design consist of just the XPS products, which are designed for gamers or PC enthusiasts? What about the rest of us? Do we just get the products that look like regular old PCs?
Medica: I want to make sure we're dealing with apples and apples, because if we look at XPS, and depending upon whether it's a desktop or a notebook, we're typically talking about products in the range of just under $1,000.

For people who can't afford that premium product but still want something that looks decent, what do you do with those consumers?
Medica: Well, that's were we have the Inspiron and Dimension notebooks, desktops, as well as our inkjet printers that?

And do you think those products really capture the imagination of consumers when it comes to design?
Medica: That's a loaded question.

Well, that's what we're talking about here, though, right? This increased focus on design at Dell is because a lot of people find your stuff boring.
Medica: With the investments that we are making, we'll continue to advance the design language. For the mainstream products (we will) ensure that they are, in fact, relevant and are aspirational, and are identifiable as being from Dell.

Because your business as a whole is so focused on corporate customers, do you think that hinders Dell when it comes to consumer design? Most of your design expertise and focus is on corporate customers, who clearly want something different than what somebody wants to bring into their home or take off to college.
Medica: We are seeing that the product design expectations from small businesses and consumers are becoming more different. It is very likely that in the future we will deliver products that are more tailored to those specific customer expectations.  

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